A marriage of old and new worlds on Paris catwalks
Homage to couture's heritage gets a modern retelling, writes Francesca Fearon
Christian Lacroix made a return to fashion with a one-off collection for the house of Schiaparelli that paid homage to the Italian designer.
The rebirth of Schiaparelli, juxtaposed with the extraordinarily modern vision shown by Raf Simons at Christian Dior, perfectly reflected the old world versus new world order that defined the autumn couture collections on show in Paris last week.
Established houses wanted to be perceived as modern while newer ones wanted to prove their historical credentials.
The message of tradition versus modernity was eloquently expressed at Chanel, where its old-world tweeds were swept aside halfway through the show and replaced with kinetic, linear-printed gowns with metallic finishes inspired by the skyline of Singapore, where Karl Lagerfeld recently presented Chanel's resort collection.
The house owned by Coco Chanel's bitter rival, Elsa Schiaparelli, returns to the catwalk next January. One of the most fêted couture houses of the 1920s and '30s, it was acquired by the Tod's Group seven years ago and its new designer will be announced in October.
Meanwhile, Lacroix created 18 looks that capture the quintessence of Schiaparelli's style, mixed with a bit of his own.
Schiaparelli was the first couturier to use zips, which Lacroix featured on a black jumpsuit. Her famous lobster hat reappears as hats and brooches. The collection is mostly in black, but there are flashes of her famous shocking pink and other vibrant hues as well as shapely silhouettes that one would associate with Lacroix.
Regrettably, it is a one-time collaboration, not even for sale; there are artists, sculptors and photographers planned for future projects to help reboot the vintage brand. Lacroix, who has spent the past three years working in theatre and opera since his own label closed, said at the launch: "Tomorrow it's back to the ballet and opera, but I have enjoyed doing this. I really want this [the collection and, by default, the house] to live."
Simons is similarly a breath of fresh air for a fashion house, but not one that has been shuttered for almost 60 years. He is clearly trying to break the mould at Dior and move it away from its staunchly retro-feminine roots.
His silhouettes are spare and modern, with swags of fabric, cowboy scarves, shibori pleating and a degradé colour effect on fringing as his few concessions to embellishment.
"My main aim is to bring a sense of reality back to haute couture," he says. "And this collection is about focusing on the reality of the woman herself, including her culture and personality."
He divided his collection into regions: Europe (Dior's links to Paris), Asia (balance and purity), America (sporty) and Africa (freedom and playfulness).
Sharing Simons' quest to find a modern relevance for haute couture are Donatella Versace, Alexandre Vauthier and Maison Martin Margiela - with the latter giving new life to old clothes, including sequined costumes from Peking opera in the '30s.
Versace was inspired by the black and white photography of the same decade, but her collection was very sleek and new world, and also rather erotic, with dresses held together with crystal hooks that curved sensuously around the body, some peeled open to show wisps of lace underneath. It gives the wearer the freedom to decide how to wear her dress, which echoes Simons' philosophy.
Vauthier's sexy clothes similarly appeal to a bold, modern customer. His tuxedos with draped pants and asymmetric tails, bomber jackets, and slashed and draped evening gowns do not have a traditional couture client in mind.
Even Jean Paul Gaultier flirts with the modern and adventurous, although there were plenty of gowns and chic tailoring to keep traditionalists happy. His collection featured wildcat prints with feathers and crystals. There was no fur in sight.
The designers who espouse the traditional sensibilities of femininity, luxury and old world glamour include Giorgio Armani, Valentino, Elie Saab, Giambattista Valli and Alexis Mabille.
Armani's Privé collection was mostly nude but utterly modest in terms of the daywear with its calf-length skirts, but his evening wear had a fragile beauty rendered in lace and beading veiled in gauzy layers.
Saab is known for his pretty beaded dresses, and his silhouettes are simple - a backless gown with a diagonal band being one of his newest concepts. Jewel colours smothered with crystals will provide plenty of choice for the red carpet in the coming season.
Valli drew on the flowery prettiness of painted Meissen and Sèvres porcelain figurines, Chinese blue-and-white porcelain patterns and neoclassical sculptures. Mabille based his collection on the artist Giovanni Boldini using draped satin and brushstroke effects.
Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli at Valentino were similarly inspired by the art world and a cabinet of curiosities, inserting antique painted images on their scrolled guipure lace gowns and reproducing a Renaissance painting in a mosaic of pearls. The workmanship was exquisite yet the clothes were very restrained.
It's the designers' way of respectfully bringing modernity to the traditionalist Valentino.
Lagerfeld says his collection for Chanel is all about the new world versus the old world. He set the scene with the ruins of an old theatre and operatic soundtrack, contrasting with a stage backdrop that revealed the gleaming spires of a futuristic metropolis. Could he be referring to the rise of the East and the decline of the West?
Clearly, the old world was referenced in classic tweeds and double-breasted jackets tiered over short skirts and his suede stocking boots. The new world was represented by shiny dresses with silvery surfaces as sheer as glass, geometric patterns like the windows of a high-rise, shards of crystal and linear kinetic prints. It was a new vision reflecting the changes being wrought in the traditional craft of haute couture.